Brian Northmore • The Dartmoor Project

Dartmoor National Park in the County of Devon in Southern England is mainly famous to photographers for it’s Tors, which are exposed granite hilltops. Here is my story and the reasons why I started my Dartmoor Project.

Dartmoor has a long relationship with man who has been largely responsible for creating the landscape we see today. Prehistoric remains found on Dartmoor date back to Neolithic and the early Bronze Age. The first settlers cleared trees creating farming communities; the moor was much warmer and habitable than it is today. Mans association with Dartmoor continued into medieval and modern times with tin mining and granite quarrying carrying on into modern times – more recently china clay. The moorland is still farmed with livestock mainly sheep and cattle – and even the wild Dartmoor Pony.

The Dartmoor National Park isn’t a location you see taken up as project by photographers that often. The UK has other national parks that offer more satisfying subject matter; the Lake District National Park with its wonderful light and rolling fells, to the more rugged and extreme mountains of the Scottish Highlands. So, why did I choose Dartmoor as my long term photography project?

I have a young family which is growing fast, but it’s through them that I came to start this project. My youngest daughter is just five years old. Landscape photography and young families are very hard to combine. It’s not easy to escape during the early hours of the morning and disappear in the evening to capture the golden hours of sunlight, then spend the rest of the hours in between catching up on sleep after a 4am start, and pouring over maps, and scouting new locations. What I needed was a new project with a subject very close to home which had been neglected by photographers for far too long.

It’s a myth amongst local photographers that Dartmoor is difficult to photograph. But isn’t every subject difficult to photograph if you don’t understand it? Some relationships take longer to form and it’s not until you have absorbed a place, played with it in your mind and developed an understanding of what it means to you that you can begin to explain it to other people. And isn’t that what we do with photography? We try to tell the viewer what we saw, but more importantly how we saw it and how it made us feel. Before I can photograph something properly I have to be comfortable in that environment and understand it so my mind can wander freely and explore these questions.

Photographers approach their subjects in many different ways. For me, the process of landscape photography is almost as important as the result. Sure, if an idea does not work out as well as I had hoped or a photograph fails to hit the mark after hours of work, I am a little disappointed, but it’s not the whole point of my photography. Photography is my therapy and the process of landscape photography on Dartmoor is like a trip to a health spa. I have read articles lately about photography and mindfulness, being absorbed in the moment, excluding all other distractions and stresses, and I can easily relate to these.

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When I take a photograph I do it for myself and the subject; there is nothing else, no time constraints, no multi-tasking. Sometimes I sit and listen, feeling all nature’s elements on my face. Engaging all my senses and absorbing the whole landscape before taking the final image.

On location I will scout around first, trying different viewpoints, compositions, formats and focal lengths. Trying to understand what it is about this location that I want to tell the viewer, and deciding how I want to tell them so. I use light and shadow, forms and lines to lead them through the image. I think about the contrast between textures, the moving water against the granite boulders. In my minds eye I see the finished photograph mounted and hanging on the wall. It is only when I reach this point that I slow down to commit the digital capture to the memory card.

All my landscape photographs are taken with the camera mounted on a tripod, mirror lockup engaged and, more often than not, I use graduated filters to ensure I can capture the image in one exposure. I always bracket exposures, getting as close to the right of the histogram as possible without blowing the highlights. Memory cards are cheap today so I tend to bracket apertures as well, varying depth of field to keep as close as possible to the optical sweet spot for my lenses.

My Dartmoor Project has expanded beyond a personal need to find a subject accessible and close to home and now includes my Dartmoor20 website. On the website photographers can find out about some of the location and walks that I enjoy. I also run photography workshops on Dartmoor, which I really enjoy. It’s very satisfying seeing someone develop during the day and admire the look of satisfaction on their faces when it all falls together.

The project will continue for a few more years. I am currently trying to promote my photography locally, at local craft and art fairs, and through social media. I have talks booked this year and the year after at local camera clubs. If you are visiting this part of the UK, or live locally, my website offers plenty of ideas for photography, and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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    I actually think we are agreeing! Not disagreeing. I regularly come across many photographers who do find it hard to photograph, and as a result it is neglected. But the efforts of photographers such as you and I are opening up the possibilities to a new audience who are enthusiastic and turning this around.

    Offer “most” photographers a trip to Dartmoor or the Lake District and those selecting Dartmoor will be in the minority. Of course this depends on the cross-section you were to ask, but in general, Dartmoor is not as popular with photographers nationally. And this is certainly not a local publication.

    I hope that clarifies a few points in the article. And if anyone feels that I have done Dartmoor a disservice, then I openly apologize, as it is truly a special and beautiful place, that I live on and photographic with much passion.

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    I have to say there are some points in this article that I disagree with. ‘The UK has other national parks that offer more satisfying subject matter’ – Not more satisfying at all, simply different and I think it’s wrong to describe Dartmoor as being a lesser location in this way. ‘What I needed was a new project with a subject very close to home which had been neglected by photographers for far too long.’ – It’s certainly not an area neglected by photographers at all, there are many, very good photographers who use it regularly and use it well. ‘It’s a myth amongst local photographers that Dartmoor is difficult to photograph. But isn’t every subject difficult to photograph if you don’t understand it.’ – No, you can understand something very well but still not be able to portray it in the way that you want to for a time. Writer’s block for example isn’t due to a writer not understanding their subject matter, it’s a stumbling block on how to proceed.

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